Editor's note: This SPIEGEL interview was conducted before the beginning of the Western military operation against Moammar Gadhafi's forces on Saturday.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, a nuclear disaster is currently unfolding in Japan. Is the nuclear age coming to an end?
Guido Westerwelle: Some events represent such a decisive turning point that afterwards nothing is the same as it was before. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were such a turning point -- and the disaster in Japan is one as well.
SPIEGEL: Do you view nuclear energy differently now than you did before?
Westerwelle: In the situation room of the German Foreign Ministry, I witnessed first-hand how the crisis grew increasingly dire in Fukushima. There were harrowing, heart-rending scenes. I immediately realized that it was simply impossible to return to business as usual. That was why I agreed on the nuclear moratorium with the chancellor. Everything now has to be reviewed.
SPIEGEL: Critics suspect that an election campaign maneuver relating to important upcoming state elections is behind the moratorium, which involves temporarily shutting down seven older nuclear power plants and subjecting all of Germany's 17 plants to strict safety reviews.
Westerwelle: China intends to review its nuclear policy, and the US wants to rethink its safety standards. India and Russia have announced similar plans. Countries around the world are starting to re-evaluate their policies. This alone shows that it is inappropriate to accuse the German government of election campaign tactics.
Westerwelle: We in the government have decided to build a bridge to the age of renewable energies. This is what I meant by a new era, and that is still valid.
SPIEGEL: This bridge had already been built for you by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's center-left coalition government of the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, which passed a law to phase out nuclear power.
Westerwelle: It is not a solution to take the safest nuclear power plants offline only to turn around the next day and purchase nuclear power from abroad. In our energy strategy, we have decided on a responsible phasing-out of nuclear power. That is what differentiates it from the SPD-Green approach.
SPIEGEL: If it was so responsible, why does everything now have to be checked again?
Westerwelle: After an event like the one in Japan, it would be negligent if we said that we were simply going to continue as before. Until now, our risk scenarios have assumed that there could be human or technical failure. Now we are confronted with a natural phenomenon of unfathomable force. We now have to re-examine this issue from a new perspective.
SPIEGEL: The concept of "residual risk" -- the risk that cannot be ruled out despite all the safety precautions -- has been much discussed in Germany in relation to nuclear power. Before Fukushima, the general public understood residual risk to mean that the chances of something going wrong in reality were basically zero. What does residual risk mean today?
Westerwelle: This is a key question that we have to ask ourselves. I can't yet give you the final answer to this question. For instance, the main problem in Fukushima was that the cooling systems failed. This naturally begs the question: Could this also happen in Germany? This is why we need this moratorium to assess what we can learn from these incidents.
SPIEGEL: Since last week, at the very latest, we have known that situations can occur in which nuclear technology can no longer be controlled. Are we now talking about shutting down seven reactors and introducing better cooling systems? Or are we talking about whether we are still even prepared to take this risk?
Westerwelle: We decided long ago that we wanted to phase out nuclear energy. Now we have to admit that today we cannot yet meet our energy demands with solar, wind and hydropower. We can, of course, burn more coal and gas, but that is also not entirely without risk. Don't forget how this affects climate change. The moratorium is no mere postponement. Things will look different afterwards.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that German nuclear power plants will not remain in operation as long as was planned?
Westerwelle: I would be cautious about making concrete conclusions. So soon after the event, I don't claim to have a comprehensive answer about everything that will need to be done.
SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel is not so cautious. Based on her government statement, it can be concluded that she wants to phase out nuclear energy more quickly than the coalition had decided last fall.
Westerwelle: I will not interpret the government statement made by the German chancellor. I have told you my opinion. And this reflects the decision that we made in the German government.
SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of a legal conflict with the energy companies? Even within the ranks of your own Free Democratic Party, people are questioning whether the moratorium has a legal basis.
Westerwelle: My father, who was a dedicated lawyer, would call that typical: In the wake of an unprecedented disaster, the government made a swift, determined and necessary decision -- and now we are discussing the question of legal clauses.
SPIEGEL: Even in difficult situations, we do expect our government not to flout the law.
Westerwelle: And there is also no question of doing so. The German environment minister, who is responsible for this issue, has announced that Article 19, Paragraph 3, Section 3 of the Atomic Energy Act provides a sufficient legal foundation (for the decision). The debate appears to me to be a diversionary tactic. After all, our critics can hardly claim that the moratorium was the wrong decision.
SPIEGEL: The disaster in Japan has overshadowed another event on the global political stage. Last Thursday, the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya. Germany, which is currently a member of the Security Council, abstained from the vote. Why do you so vehemently oppose a no-fly zone?
Westerwelle: We want to stop the dictator. Indeed, right from the very beginning, we have spearheaded international and European efforts to impose sanctions. But military missions and air strikes are something else. I don't want us to venture onto a slippery slope that would lead to German troops participating in a war in Libya.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't inaction make us just as guilty as military intervention?
Westerwelle: The alternative to military operations is hardly inaction. After examining the repercussions of a military mission, with all of its uncertainties, which could possibly go as far as deploying ground troops and maintaining a military presence for years, I came to the following conclusion: No, we will not take part with German troops, no matter how honorable the motives of our partners who have decided differently.
SPIEGEL: Germany is the only Western country to abstain from voting on the Security Council resolution, siding with less democratic countries like Russia and China. Is this company that we should feel comfortable with?
Westerwelle: Don't forget Brazil and India. We abstained from voting because there was a major part of the resolution -- military intervention -- that we won't go along with. This was not an easy decision for us to make. It was preceded by a difficult evaluation process. I am convinced that it was the right decision.
SPIEGEL: You have regarded it as a personal success that Germany was elected to the Security Council. Now we are abstaining from a key international policy resolution. Is Germany simply out of its depth on the international political stage?
Westerwelle: With the 7,000 soldiers of the Bundeswehr who are currently on missions abroad, Germany is fulfilling its international responsibilities. We are the third-largest donor of development aid. Our efforts to promote peace and freedom are recognized worldwide.
SPIEGEL: The Arab League called for a no-fly zone. Two Arab countries -- Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- appeared willing to help enforce the no-fly zone. This means that the conditions which you yourself stipulated have been met. Why don't you at least want to take part in AWACS reconnaissance flights over Libya in the fight against Moammar Gadhafi?
Westerwelle: We will not participate in military operations in Libya with German troops. I repeat: We have very carefully considered this and come to a fundamental decision. That decision still applies. We shall see how the countries in the region act in reality. I have noticed that those people in Germany who are currently shouting "Go into Libya!" are, of all people, the same ones who otherwise shout "Get out of Afghanistan!"